Rarely do maritime archaeologists have the opportunity to explore settlements submerged underwater where the outline of the original settlement still remains largely intact. The city of Heracleion located off the western shores of the Nile Delta, Egypt, is one such site that offers substantial submerged archaeological remains. This late Pharaonic and Ptolemaic city whose life spanned over a thousand years, reveals extensive building remains including the ruins of shops, warehouses and temples, built on islands and fragmented by canals and waterways. This vast city was formerly located at the mouth of the Canopic Branch of the Nile River and acted as the gateway to Egypt from the late Pharaonic period possibly as early as the 8th BC, until its role as Egypt’s primary coastal port was usurped by Alexandria in the 3rd century BC.
Investigations at the site have been ongoing by the University of Oxford and the Hilti Foundation for thirteen years under the direction of Frank Goddio. Numerous areas of the site have been excavated and many of the finds recovered have been displayed in museums around the world. Discoveries have revealed a settlement that was a port site that facilitated the movement of goods upstream to Naucratis (investigated by the British Museum) and the capital at Sais (investigated by the University of Durham). It was also a naval and military base defending the region against attack. And finally, it was a hugely important religious settlement with extensive evidence of ritual practise, sacred canals and religious offerings.
Despite the extensive amount of investigation undertaken at the site and the remarkable finds discovered including over 64 shipwrecks, the reasons why it became submerged beneath the waters of the Mediterranean have only recently been fully understood. The BBC2 documentary presented by University of Southampton MOOC ‘Shipwrecks and Submerged Worlds’ educator Dr Lucy Blue, investigates the work that has been conducted at this site to date, revealing aspects of life in this ancient Egyptian city and exploring the causes of its demise.
Further reading/watching about Heracleion